At Home in the Stacks: An Interview with Amber Dermont
Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to steal a few minutes with debut author Amber Dermont whose novel, THE STARBOARD SEA, comes out this month! She opened our conversation with a word about what librarians mean to her.
"I grew up in a library," she said. "My parents are rare book dealers and our house was floor to ceiling bookshelves and first editions. To this day, I still feel most at home lost among the stacks. During high school and college, I worked as a library proctor and apprenticed myself to a series of world-class librarians. These super heroes taught me how to research my stories, check my facts and compile the necessary details that lead me to write my own novel. I am forever in their debt."
And now, on to the interview!
Ali: I would guess that every debut author takes inspiration from other artists, be they authors, musicians, painters, or, say, typographers. Does anyone stick out as a particularly important part of your process?
Amber: Great question! Writers are like magpies thieving for shiny objects, eager for any charm that will help build a better nest. As I began writing THE STARBOARD SEA, I sought inspiration from the painter John Currin and the photographers Tina Barney and Anthony Goicolea. All three of these artists helped me envision the physical and emotional landscapes of the novel: the listless suntanned faces, the splendor of Manhattan penthouses, the caprice of adolescence and the brutal beauty of youth. John Currin often paints society women in sexy, outlandish poses. His portrait of his wife, "Rachel in Fur," served as the muse for my character Brizzey and the redheaded starlet in his masterpiece, "Heartless," helped me bring Diana and Aidan to life. Currin's intimate depiction of two nude sailors, "Fishermen," became a touchstone for Jason's tender and fraught relationship with Cal.
Like Currin, Tina Barney is famous for her arresting images of East Coast aristocracy. "Social Studies," a documentary about Barney's artistic process, reveals the photographer's inscrutable reverence for her wealthy subjects and her commitment to showcasing Upper East Siders in moments of disarming vulnerability. While the characters in Barney's photographs are often stiff and reserved, Anthony Goicolea toys with images of mischief and bad behavior. He's known for a series of staged self-portraits. Costumed as a naughty preppie, multiple images of Goicolea smoking, sailing, drowning and whoring appear in each photograph. He acts out the wanton impulses of an entire cast of outrageous characters and the uncanny repetition of his image is simultaneously seductive and unsettling. As I began to write about a world of unchecked privilege, I kept returning to these three artists and I have deep affection for their golden glamour and their insights into the emotional cost of wealth.
Ali: Wow! These pieces are blowing me away. It's no surprise that they inspired you. Booklist says you have a spark for the "sensual descriptions of sailing." Do you have any experience with sailing or crew, yourself? If not, what was the research process like for that?
Amber: I grew up on Cape Cod and have always loved being out on the water. There's nothing better than harnessing the power of the wind and the waves and barreling out to sea. During the early stages of working on the novel, I recognized that most people would be unfamiliar with the nomenclature of sailing and that it would be a challenge to write about a sport with so many moving parts, so many rules and procedures. Lucky for me, the language of seafaring is rich with poetry. Keel, halyard, lazarette, mizzen--these are beautiful words whether you know what they mean or not. I tried to write about sailing in an inclusive way so that people who couldn't tell the difference between a laser or a lark could still visualize the descriptions of racing and appreciate how much the sport means to Jason and Cal.
Ali: Success! As a reader without sailing experience, I had no trouble following along. Now, tell us a little bit about your decision to include some of the complex LGBTQ themes into this piece.
Amber: Depending on the boat, sailing is either a solitary pursuit or a highly intimate experience. I'm especially fascinated by the camaraderie that exists between a skipper and crew. In order to sail together successfully, Jason and Cal must be as close and connected as two lovers. I wondered what happened to that intimacy when they returned to land. Writing about sailing was a way for me to discover these characters and explore their complexity. The depths of human desire are unfathomable and transcend orientation, nature and socialization. Aidan and Cal each love with an openness and fearlessness that Jason struggles to understand and experience. Though Jason does something horrific to Cal, I never wanted that action to arise from his sexual identity but rather from the corrupting force of his privilege. Ultimately, I wanted to write a love story unlike any other.
Ali: Beautiful. And now for the silly question! I'm not the first (and won't be the last) to compare this intimate and at times dark coming-of-age story to THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. If Jason and Holden were friends, how do you think they would spend an afternoon together?
Amber: I think Jason and Holden would stand on the edge of some crazy cliff overlooking the sea and play catch.
Ali: Ha! Sounds about right. Thank you so much for joining us Amber! We look forward to seeing THE STARBOARD SEA on library shelves this month.